Old Bakery…New Co-op

A model of the village commons

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There was no doubt that we needed more room. Two pint-sized shopping carts couldn’t pass in the aisles at the co-op’s old 5,400-square-foot store in Eureka, California. Out of this need for more space came much more than a new and larger market. We created the modern equivalent of the village commons.

Many cooperatives begin as 1970s buying clubs, and so it was for the North Coast Co-op in Arcata, California. The years flew by, and we moved into one space after another, each bigger than the last. In 1996 we opened a small second store across the bay in Eureka. By 2000, the Arcata store had grown to its present size of 27,400 square feet, and the Eureka store was already too small.

So, we took the leap. The discussion to build a new Eureka store began in 2003 and construction began in 2004. On September 29, 2006 we opened the doors of our new, 28,800-square-foot facility.

Sustainable architecture

Ours was the exception to the maxim, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The developers said they would foot the bill to see the new co-op built in the Old Town section of Eureka. They were open to virtually all of our ideas to reuse, recycle, and incorporate as many eco-friendly materials as possible.

At the new site was an old, abandoned bakery, and the first thing we did was to strengthen and reuse half the original structure. Much of the old concrete was crushed and reused, and the unusable wood and steel were recycled. Among other materials choices, to list a few of many examples: the casework is made of recycled wheat straw fiberboard; counter tops are hemp-based paper with eco- friendly phenolic resins; marmoleum flooring is made of “green” linseed oil, rosins, wood flour, and a jute backing; floor mats are made from recycled tires; and the refrigeration is the most energy-efficient in the industry. When the new co-op was finished, members and shoppers could be proud that it represents the best in current sustainable architecture.

Bigger size, better service

Opening the doors was like opening the floodgates. To give an idea of our initial success, we actually canceled much of the advertising and marketing planned for our grand opening. We could barely keep up with all the wide-eyed members and shoppers streaming through the doors, and those customers were providing that most valuable of advertising: word of mouth. Average weekly sales at our old location were $90,000. The new store averages $200,000 a week. One of our goals was 500 new members within six to twelve months after opening. We reached that in five weeks.

We live in northwestern California, an area with a year-round growing season, plenty of rain, strong agricultural communities, a productive fisheries industry, and dozens of small, entrepreneurial food producers. As a result we can offer the largest selection of organic products, locally grown and produced foods, and fresh baked goods north of the San Francisco area.

The larger space allows us to provide more of these things and a wider variety as well. Our produce section is all organic. The bulk food department is huge, with well over 1,000 items. The new expanded deli has seen tremendous growth, and it offers free wireless Internet access to our customers. We began free grocery delivery service to Eureka members, and we host the local farmer’s market in our parking lot each week.

The village commons

We always knew we could provide a food co-op to meet the needs of our members and shoppers. Our decades of experience, with the inevitable ups and downs, gave us the background and confidence to meet that goal. We wanted to take the next step with the new Eureka store. We wanted to become more than a market.

Author Lee Felsenstein, in writing about the history of the village commons, said, “All villages were centered around some space of assembly, which usually functioned as a marketplace. But what happened in these marketplaces was more than commerce. The village square was a place of commercial, social, educational, and political transactions.” To apply this idea, we built a few special amenities into the new store.

Our community kitchen is the home to evening classes taught by local chefs, covering everything from vegan dishes to seasonal meals to international cuisines. On weekends we host demonstrations, sessions on kitchen safety, and cooking classes for kids only.

The kitchen is also available for organizations like Food For People, Farm To School, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), and other community service groups who hold free classes for the people and families they support. We’ve also built in a furnished meeting room that any organization, club, or group can use as their gathering place, free of charge.

Each month we host “Good Food Celebration,” a special event around a specific food theme, with growers, vendors, and producers coming to conduct demonstrations and tell their stories. On these days we will also have “Concerts At The Co-op,” live music under the high atrium inside the main entrance.

In early 2007 we will create the co-op education center. This will be a space in the store, free of product advertising or marketing, providing customers a reading library stocked with books and periodicals, information and alerts about current food issues, plus pamphlets, brochures, recipes and more. The heart of the center will be an interactive computer kiosk where customers and members can look up information online, as well as send a message to the general manager and the board of directors, learn about board policies and decisions, participate in surveys, and many other computer-based activities.

In this way, the new Eureka co-op will be not only a market but also a community center…a place to have meetings, attend cooking classes, research the latest recipes, communicate with the co-op, check your email over lunch, meet friends, and just stay in touch with the community.

The faces behind your food

We wanted to close the loop. Our customers know we carry more locally produced and grown foods than any market in northwestern California, and the largest variety of organic foods as well. But how many know the people that grow the potato, catch the crab, and toast the chip?

On display around the new Eureka store are large photographs of local providers, and a caption about their business and their relationship with the co-op. These pictures represent some of the many faces of sustainable food production in Humboldt County. Like so many other small-scale producers throughout the country, the farmers, ranchers, and providers pictured here produce delicious, healthy food, while applying practices that protect the environment and our natural resources at the same time.

A vital cooperative principle: community

Perhaps the most important principle that the North Coast Co-op, and all co-ops worldwide, live by is “concern for community.” Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members. When the North Coast Co-op began a charitable fund in 1990, a handful of members raised $1,000. Today, the Co-op Community Fund has grown to provide gifts of nearly $20,000 annually for the financial support of agricultural, artistic, athletic and educational endeavors of the local community. Some of the many organizations the CCF supports include 4H of Humboldt County, Campus Center For Appropriate Technology, Humboldt Senior Resource Center, The Open Door Clinic, Youth Educational Services, and dozens more.

Two months open

The transition from old store to new has been challenging, and there were the inevitable bugs to work out that accompany an undertaking of this size. Since the tidal wave that was opening day, we’ve been getting our footing and focusing on the day-to-day operations, where we can tackle challenges in stride. Now the store feels like home. The staff of the new store has doubled from about 29 to 60, the products and services we offer are far greater, and two full-sized shopping carts can finally pass in the aisles!

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James Scothorn is creative services director at North Coast Co-op in Arcata, California ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #128 January - February - 2007